An Open Secret of Surveillance

From USA Today comes this report on law enforcement’s burgeoning use of so-called IMSI-catchers to conduct routine, mass surveillance.

If you haven’t heard of these devices, here’s a good, plain-English piece on them from NPR. The IMSI part stands for International Mobile Subscriber Identity, and an IMSI-catcher tricks your cell phone (and every other cell phone in the vicinity) into thinking it’s the cell tower with the best signal, so your phone connects. The device then takes your phone’s unique IMSI, pinpoints its location, and logs the numbers you call or text, the numbers that call or text you, and the time and duration of your calls. The models of today and tomorrow can also access the content of your communications and basically take over your phone.

The special problem that’s highlighted in the USA Today report is that, in many jurisdictions, the police appear to use these devices in routine, ordinary cases—without a warrant or any judicial review—even though the devices are purchased with federal money from grants tied specifically to national security and terrorism. That problem is compounded by the fact that police have taken great pains to conceal their use of these devices—or even their existence—from the public. In court filings, agents or officers have described them in vague or abstract terms like “sophisticated electronic equipment,” and in some cases, they’ve failed to refer to them at all. Instead, they may say they located a suspect’s phone without saying how, or they may suggest they just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

According to one legal expert, “The problem is you can’t have it both ways. You can’t have it be some super-secret national-security terrorist-finder and then use it to solve petty crimes.”

It’s an open secret at this point, however, and the tide of the law may be turning.

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